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How The Post-Dispatch Is Trying To Create A Better Comment Section

August 13, 2019 Beth O'Malley Lindsay Toler
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch unveiled a new online comment system. Declaring its old Facebook-based model broken, the daily newspaper explained that community moderation and a scoring system for commenters would give greater prominence to readers who “consistently drive positive conversation.”

On Tuesday, Post-Dispatch reader engagement editor Beth O’Malley joined us in studio on St. Louis on the Air to discuss how the new system is working and the difficulties of keeping online conversation civil in an angry age. Lindsay Toler, the digital engagement producer for St. Louis Public Radio, also joined the show. 

As Toler explained, St. Louis Public Radio decided in March to do away with comments on its web stories. 

“The comment section was not productive,” she explained. “We wanted people to be able to weigh in and say, ‘This story affected me in this way.’ ‘I’m connected to this story.’ Or, ‘Here’s something new; here’s something the reporter should know.’ None of that kind of conversation could happen because, instead, it was a lot of, ‘Hi, I’m Mr. Commenter; I’m the one who comments first, and this whole story is bunk.’ And that’s not a way to foster a conversation.”

But despite weighing the end of comments, O’Malley said, the Post-Dispatch continues to feel they are worth the effort.

“To me, there’s a value in knowing what your readers think of your work,” she said, adding, “There are people on our site who are super commenters – they comment from a very particular perspective, and they comment on very particular stories that they’re passionate about. And that does form its own sense of community. And so what we want to see is people coming to our site to get their news and honestly staying on our site to see what other people think about that news.”

The daily’s new system is off to a good start (albeit with a few hiccups), O’Malley said. Readers can reward their peers for a helpful comment or flag them for a bad one. So far, she said, more are praising the good contributions of others than attempting to ban ones they don’t like.

As for St. Louis Public Radio, Toler noted that readers who might previously have left a comment now email the station – sometimes with questions, sometimes with tips. 

“I kind of like that they’re just talking to us,” she said. “I forward that stuff as appropriate to the reporters, and they reach back out.”

Listen to the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.